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The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con by [Amy Reading]
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The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con Kindle Edition

3.7 out of 5 stars 27 ratings

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“Not only does she artfully relate Norfleet's revenge, but [Reading] also places it in the context of scammers dead and living. This is not a history of Ponzi schemes, and it does not reach the heights (or should I say depths) of Bernie Madoff's operation. It is, however, an engaging book for anybody who wants to better understand misconduct in the realm of finance—and the consequences of such misconduct for everybody involved.”
     —Steve Weinberg, USA Today

“In these pages are brilliant portraits of Florida before retirement groves, of wild-west Denver before the tech boom, and of Texas before the Bush family decamped there from Greenwich, Connecticut. The country was younger then, though not more innocent. . . . A ripping good read.”
    —David M. Shribman, The Boston Globe

“In the era of Bernie Madoff, Nigerian spam scams, and other sordid rackets, it’s heartening to remember that swindling once took a touch more finesse. . . . The Mark Inside is an astounding tale, brought to vivid life by an historian who has had to become an expert at distinguishing fact from romantic fiction.”
     —Jim Kelly, Businessweek
 
“Reading doesn’t swindle her readers. . . . She delivers the goods, with enough scholarly information on America's con men to keep intellectually minded readers from feeling guilty about reading such a whopping good tale.”
     —Doug Childers, Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Amy Reading brings to life one actual con in a book as riveting as a movie. . . . An amazing piece of historical research that will ensnare the reader.”
     —Arthur T. Vanderbilt, Newark Star-Ledger

“Engrossing. . . . [Reading] gets to the center of both Norfleet’s story and the mass appeal of the con artist as a figure in American culture.”
    —Ian Crouch, The Paris Review Daily

“Vibrant characterizations. . . . This narrative of vigilante justice flows like fiction, as con artistry is illuminated throughout, with resonance in today’s world of high-tech con artistry.”
     —Publishers Weekly

“Fascinating . . . Norfleet’s quest seems both quixotic and inspiring.”
     —Kirkus Reviews

“Most scholarship reads like a trip to the dentist. The Mark Inside reads like a trip to the track.”
   —David Mamet, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Glengarry Glen Ross and House of Games
 
“With pitch-perfect storytelling and stylish prose, Amy Reading weaves a gripping tale of a grand swindle and even grander act of revenge, a solo manhunt throughout North America that’s as hilarious as it is compelling. Rarely has history been this fun, fast-paced, and fulfilling. The Mark Inside is a book you won’t put down and a story you’ll never forget.”
     —Karen Abbott, New York Times best-selling author of American Rose and Sin in the Second City

“Part page-turning crime drama, part juicy tale of vengeance and obsession, part informative social history, and part  intriguing epistemological rumination about literary truth, Amy Reading’s The Mark Inside is always great fun. From the first page Ms. Reading hooks the reader as shrewdly as any of the bunco men she writes about—only she makes good on this enticement, delivering narrative gold.”
     —Howard Blum, best-selling author of The Floor of Heaven and American Lightning

“An astonishing story of one victim’s determined quest to bring down a ring of swindling confidence men.  We have rigged fights, fake stock exchanges, gun battles, jailbreaks, a hardy Texan, an honest dentist and a righteous DA.  Here’s early twentieth-century capitalism—a great humbug run by the ghost of a grinning P.T. Barnum.”
     —Ann Fabian, author of Card Sharps and Bucket Shops

“It’s tempting to say that The Mark Inside reads like a historical novel, but really it’s more like a great heist film. Amy Reading entertains while explaining why all Americans—from Ben Franklin to Bernie Madoff—are part trickster and part sucker.”
   —Scott A. Sandage, author of Born Losers --This text refers to the hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

CHAPTER ONE

Confidence

J. Frank Norfleet was feeling confident as he strode into the St. George Hotel in Dallas. He'd just arrived from Dublin, Texas, where he'd sold a carload of mules at an admirable profit. He was a prosperous fifty-four-year-old rancher from the Texas Panhandle, a third-generation pioneer who had worked his whole life to turn the prairie, now swept clean of Indians and buffalo, into a profitable ground for agriculture and livestock. Since he was a teenager, he'd herded sheep and hogs, driven cattle across the open range, and fenced thousands of acres of pastureland. He'd made foreman on the Spade Ranch in Hale County at a young age and saved his modest wages until, when he was forty-nine, he was finally able to afford his own land. He purchased about 8,000 acres near the Spade Ranch and continued to raise livestock in small numbers, investing the profits in adjacent land until his ranch had grown to 20,000 acres. On this November day in 1919, he was in Dallas for his biggest deal yet: he planned to sell 2,050 acres of improved land and use the proceeds to buy a choice 10,000-acre parcel from the nearby ranch of Captain Dick Slaughter, the heir of a renowned cattle baron.

Norfleet was as straight as they come. He had banned gambling from the Spade Ranch. "I don't drink, chew tobacco, smoke, cuss, or tell lies," he would say, his light blue eyes glinting. "The last is the most important. I never tell a damn lie." His fierce work ethic and his ability to turn manual labor into a small fortune rightly gave him confidence-hard-earned, time-tested confidence in his own discernment-which in turn allowed him to bestow his trust on others. He prized honesty and square dealing above all else. His word was his bond, and he planned to seal the Slaughter deal with a handshake, because a man wore his integrity as visibly as he wore his mustache.

But to anyone watching, J. Frank Norfleet looked exactly like a sucker. At five feet five in his cowboy boots, he towered above exactly no one, and with his legs bowed from years in the saddle and his suit pants shoved into his boots, he was conspicuous as someone out of his league in the big city. And there were in fact two people watching him make his entrance, two members of the cast who were already at their stations, in costume and with their lines at the ready. Reno Hamlin sat in the hotel lobby, while one of his colleagues hovered just outside the building, peering inside for Hamlin's signal. Hamlin had dressed to match Norfleet, and with his square head, thick neck, and stocky build he made a convincing Texas countryman.

Hamlin could see from yards away the palpable relief in the cowboy's eyes when he spotted one of his own kind among the urbanites, and the two men soon fell to talking. Hamlin introduced himself as Miller, a mule buyer from Hill County, Texas. He had also just arrived in Dallas, but his mind was on where he'd come from. "I saw the best carload of mules unloaded at Dublin the other day I ever saw in this country," he told Norfleet. "I want to buy a carload just like them." Norfleet's eyes lit up. Sure enough, Hamlin had unknowingly been admiring Norfleet's mules, and within minutes they had given each other their word that Hamlin would buy a shipment of them, as well as two freight cars of kafir corn and maize.

After the initial onrush of good feeling, Norfleet explained to his new friend that he couldn't deliver his goods right away because he was stuck in the city, searching for a buyer for his farm and waiting for Captain Slaughter to return to Dallas so they could close the land deal. "Norfleet, I may help you out," said Hamlin. He had a friend who was a purchasing agent with the Green Immigration Land Company in Minneapolis-a businessman scouting land in Texas. Perhaps he might be interested in Norfleet's land? Hamlin gave the secret signal to his confederate out on the sidewalk.

Into the hotel lobby strode W. B. Spencer, and amid exclamations of surprise over the coincidence Hamlin introduced him to Norfleet as Charles Harris. Spencer's costume contrasted starkly with Hamlin's. He was a young man with finely etched features, his curly hair swept back off his brow as if he were facing the wind of the future. He wore a crisp suit, the embodiment of the successful businessman. Hamlin began excitedly talking up Norfleet's farm, its smooth, level land, the particulars of its cultivation, the schoolhouse and church on its grounds. Spencer smiled noncommittally at Hamlin's overeager monologue. He patiently explained that he was currently negotiating land in Williamson County and wasn't free to embark on a new deal. He wouldn't want Norfleet to get his hopes up.

But when the three men met the next day, Spencer was far more effusive. He told Norfleet that the owners of the Williamson County land had decided not to sell because of the recent oil boom and, though he had never purchased land as far west as Hale County, he was now rather desperate and therefore willing to consider Norfleet's property. He took down the description from Norfleet and telegrammed it to his superiors. In the meantime, he invited Norfleet to check out of the St. George and share his double room at the Jefferson Hotel. He tumbled over himself with eagerness in his invitation, explaining that he wanted to show Norfleet his credentials, which were back at the room, and anyway he could save Norfleet a bundle in hotel bills. Norfleet accepted, charmed by the man's youthful friendliness. Spencer's boss, Garrett Thompson, soon telegrammed to say he was passing through Dallas and would love the opportunity to meet Norfleet. Would Norfleet agree to meet him at the Adolphus Hotel the next day?

Courted by three successful businessmen, wined and dined at the city's best hotels, his down payment on the Slaughter land growing plumper by the hour, Norfleet must have felt as if something great were just beginning. In fact, something great was already well under way. Just twenty-four hours had elapsed and already he was deep into the big con.

When Norfleet stepped into the St. George Hotel, he entered a tightly scripted drama with nine acts, each with its own distinct function in conveying the mark toward the climax when his money will be whisked away. Even the mark has his lines, and just because he doesn't know them does not mean he won't say them at exactly the right moment. He will, because the dialogue is designed so that his responses are the most predictable things he would say in such a situation. The play hinges on three psychological moments, when the mark must make a decision that will propel him further inside. Any objections he might muster have already been taken into account and rejoinders to them devised. Norfleet's role called for him to play himself, a part at which he excelled, but in a context designed so that his own earnest words would betray him. Confidence men took inordinate pride in the structured nature of their profession. Instead of the violence and mayhem of other kinds of theft, they relied solely on a perfectly constructed piece of theater.

Con artistry may seem, at times, like the art of controlling a mark's mind, but Norfleet made the decisions he did only because his swindlers so completely engineered his interpretation of events. He perceived his initial encounters with the two men as organic happenstances. In fact the swindlers had framed his experiences so that even the backdrop of urban life-the hotel lobbies, the streets, the office buildings-became props in their drama, the strangers around them became unwitting extras. The big con works because it makes use of a time-honored technique from stage magic, the one- ahead, in which the trick begins before the performer formally introduces it to the audience; it is the most elaborate form of misdirection because it leads the mark to misperceive the nature of the entire situation. In the face of the one-ahead, Norfleet's defenselessness was absolute-who, in his boots, would possibly guess that such an elaborate performance has been devised just for him?

The first of the nine acts began before Norfleet even walked into the St. George, when Reno Hamlin had put the mark up for fleecing. Hamlin had trawled the lines at the train station and the hotels, eavesdropping on conversations and peering over counters at registers and receipts, until he had identified someone promising. Norfleet was no redneck blusterer, no wide-eyed naïf, no freewheeling gambler, no shyster on the make. What about him interested Hamlin? Hamlin had sifted the crowd with a particular set of criteria. His next mark would have to be, first and foremost, an out-of-towner so that he wouldn't be able to turn to his local banker for advice during the swindle or encounter the con men after his money vanished. He would be from a second- or third-tier American city, traveling alone in a large city for business purposes. It goes without saying that his mark would be male, for women rarely had the fortune, autonomy, and wherewithal to make investment decisions with the decisiveness that the con required. He would be a prosperous, substantial citizen in his community. More than that, he would be a self-made man, accustomed to both hard work and seizing the main chance. He must be able to raise $20,000, $30,000, $40,000, even $50,000 in a day or two, but he must not have so much money that he would refer a deal to his bankers and accountants. He wouldn't be overly familiar with the financial industry. Norfleet fit that role in almost every particular.

The second act was to play the con for him: gain his confidence and bait him with thoughts of lucrative business deals. Hamlin and Spencer, the steerers, calibrated their offers to seem eminently plausible, not wanting to arouse Norfleet's suspicion. By the second day, they had succeeded in imaginatively increasing his wealth. At first glance, their two-step approach-first Hamlin's mules and then Spencer's land-might seem unnecessarily elaborate. Why not hook Norfleet simply by providing him with what he sought in Da... --This text refers to the hardcover edition.

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